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Indie chain buying Phila.'s Ritz theaters

The national outfit shows a similar slate of films.

The Ritz Theatres, Center City's beloved movie shrines, are on the brink of acquisition by Landmark Theatres.

The nation's premier chain devoted to indie and art films confirmed Friday that it was in negotiations to buy the Philadelphia operations of the Ritz.

Although the pact is not final, Landmark may take ownership of the 12 screens at Society Hill's Ritz Five, Ritz East, and Ritz at the Bourse as early as March 30.

Those close to negotiations would not comment on a purchase price. Landmark would buy the Ritz Five at Second and Walnut outright and assume the leases on the two other locations. (The Ritz Sixteen in Voorhees is not part of the deal.)

"Of all the companies out there, Landmark is the best fit," said Jay Ayrton, director of operations for the Ritz Theatres, one of the last locally owned arthouses outside California. He informed his managers of an impending change in ownership by memo Wednesday night. Because Landmark shows the same mix of movies as the Ritz, the movie menu is unlikely to change.

Landmark, one of the many companies owned by media mavericks Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban, operates 56 theaters in 22 markets including Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington. Like the Ritzes, the Landmark venues are meccas for movie geeks who become attached to the moviehouses where they experience their cinematic epiphanies. (Cuban is perhaps most visible as the owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks.)

Ritz stalwart Jon Katz, a retired Penn professor who bought his house in Society Hill because of its proximity to the Ritz's three arthouses, was initially stunned by the news of the sale, likening it to "losing an old friend."

But, Katz reflected, "if Landmark continues to show documentaries, foreign films and art films, it will be just fine."

"Landmark is the gold standard," says Len Klady, film-industry analyst for the Web site "Right now, it's the only national chain dedicated to alternative fare."

The Robert Redford-branded Sundance Cinemas, with venues scheduled to open in Madison, Wis., and San Francisco, is Landmark's only prospective competition on the national stage.

Since the Ritz Three (now the Five) opened in 1976, it has been as dear to the heart of local cinephiles as to distributors of "specialized" (i.e., art and independent) films.

"Their programming has been the key," said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, whose Volver and Oscar-winning The Lives of Others are playing on Ritz screens.

"The only theater programmed as well as the Ritz is the Lincoln Plaza across from Lincoln Center in New York City," Bernard said.

"At both the Ritz and the Lincoln Plaza you have movie die-hards who don't come necessarily to see a specific movie playing, but any movie playing, because they know they'll all be interesting."

According to Bernard, "There's no other chain that the Ritz could be part of and stay the same."

The Ritz Sixteen in Voorhees, which plays a mix of specialized and mainstream product, is talking to other chains about acquiring the state-of-the-art multiplex in New Jersey, says one with knowledge of the deal.

Landmark would not comment as to whether the chain had plans to acquire or build any other theaters in the Philadelphia market.

Nor would it answer questions about upgrading the Philadelphia theaters with amenities such as fine food and liquor that are planned for Landmark theaters in Los Angeles and Baltimore.